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The FIFA World Cup and the Asia-Pacific Underdogs: Do We Have What it Takes to Show the World Who’s Best? [ 2006.06.18 ]

In just over a weeks time the greatest single sporting event on our planet will be taking centre stage in the heart of the European continent, Germany.

32 teams from every corner of the globe will come together to challenge for the right to be the greatest football nation in the world, and the Asia-Pacific is greatly represented on all sides with no less than 7 regional participants.

To the west of the Pacific, and ironically to the east of Germany, come Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. On the other side of our ocean sits the United States, Mexico, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. Whilst the last two may not yet be politically aligned with the others through the Asia-Pacific Economic Community, it would be unfair to ignore their contribution to the Asia-Pacific’s collective World Cup campaign.

So why should the people of the Asia-Pacific be so interested in this single sporting festival? Well, however modern human society has evolved, it has thrown up the sport of football as the most popular and the most played anywhere on the planet. Whether in the poorest streets of a South American city, the dirt fields of Africa, or on a sleek artificial pitch in East Asia, the children of the world love to kick a round ball to each other.

Somehow this simple act of booting an inflated ‘pigskin’ towards two sticks has evolved from being merely a pastime, an amateur sport, and even a professional showpiece of athleticism and skill to being a celebration of one’s own cultural persuasions and national pride. In times of relative peace and prosperity nothing pleases a nation more than being able to claim to be a world champion, and since football is truly the world game the world cup is the most valued of all international prizes.

Countries that perform well in this quadrennial tournament are often noticed by others with the utmost respect with regards to their sporting prowess and often other facets of life follow suit. For example, when Korea reached the semi-finals of the last FIFA world cup people from all over the world were made to appreciate not only the Koreans’ achievements on the field, but their friendly, well mannered, and respectful nature as evident by their playing style as well as the actions of their fans.

In 1990 in Italy it was the African nation of Cameroon that won over everyone’s hearts with their enigmatic style and their grace which got them to within a whisker of making it to the semi-finals. Even the North Koreans in England ’66 were given huge respect and appreciated for their efforts despite being only years earlier an avowed communist enemy of the hosts of the tournament.

But that is the very beauty of the world cup; politics gets left at the gate. The tournament is not about how a strong a nation is off the park, but rather how they can act in the arena of sportsmanship. Look at the US, world leaders in everything but not football. They even lost to their ideological nemesis, Iran, in France 1998. So the world cup is a great leveler.

It gives all nations, races, and cultures an even playing field, forgetting about wealth, political leanings, or religions. It is just 11 men versus 11 others in a fierce but friendly battle to please the masses.

This is why it is important to wish our competing Asia-Pacific teams all the best in representing our region. Strong on field performances lead to a more high profile tournament for any team as they progress further towards the final and this in turn shows the world what type of national character the representatives are exhibiting. With any luck several of our region’s teams will progress through to the knock out stages where as they say, ‘anything can happen’.

In a football landscape dominated by Europe and South America it is extremely difficult to foresee a team from the Asia-Pacific lifting the coveted trophy come July, but here are my predictions for how the Asia-Pacific will fare:

Australia

Australia is one of the few nations where football has not had a big history. As an English colony the Anglo sports of Rugby, Cricket, and Hockey grew strongly but curiously Football did not. It was not until many post World War Two European immigrants arrived bringing with them the structured game that the sport began to grow slowly throughout the country. To this day it still battles to gain fans from other football codes such as rugby league and union, and Australian Rules football. This is only the second time the nation has qualified for the finals, and the first since 1974, funnily enough the last time the games were held in Germany. As such Australia’s football pedigree can be seen as weak at best, but as Korea proved 4 years ago, never discount an underdog. With all but 3 squad members plying their trade in Europe’s big leagues the Aussie squad is loaded with raw talent if not big game experience. Unfortunately they were drawn in an extremely tough group including fellow Asia-Pacific member Japan and 5 times champion Brazil. If they are to progress one feels the third game against Croatia could prove to be a ‘make or break’ tussle with a team of similar stature. If Australia keeps one or two clean sheets and nicks the occasional goal do not be surprised to see the green and gold make it through.

Prediction: Round of 16

Costa Rica

As a small nation with a big heart Costa Rica has enjoyed multiple finals appearances in recent years but despite their best efforts they have tended to be outclassed by much bigger opposition. No one can blame them for trying though, and who can forget their noble 5-2 loss to Brazil 4 years previous. As that score line suggests it is on the defensive side of the pitch that Costa Rica struggles. Sure they can poach goals but their own backline can be leakier than most Costa Rican fishing trawlers. With a squad devoid of household names they do tend to be favored by a relatively easy qualification method within the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football. The football gods have been unkind also as they come up against host nation and powerhouse Germany in the tournaments opening match. The sense of the occasion will get to them and if they do not play smartly they will probably be considered the tournaments first exit candidates. Poland, though less classy than their German neighbours, have decades of experience to call upon and should also be too strong. Sadly I see our Asia-Pacific minnows bowing out early.

Prediction: Group Stage

Ecuador

Despite hailing from football’s second most successful continent Ecuador’s world cup history is a short one. Their only other previous appearance came four yeas ago in East Asia and they do not have a rich history of exporting talented players abroad. Many experts point to a geographical anomaly as a reason for their qualification success. Ecuador’s home ground is elevated 2385 metres above sea level and when opposition teams pay them a visit they cannot possibly acclimatise to the extreme atmospheric conditions. This does not explain of course why they have not achieved continued success down the years and it is most likely that the nation’s football talent is in the middle of a strong patch. Even still they will struggle to take points off the established European sides and their best hope for a moral boosting win could be against fellow strugglers Costa Rica.

Prediction: Group Stage

Korea

Perhaps the Asia-Pacific’s best chance for strong world cup representation lies with former hosts and everyone’s second favourite participant from 2002, Korea. If nothing else the majority of the team have the experience of reaching the dizzying heights of the semi-finals four years back, but just like their Japanese neighbours Korea’s track record abroad is abysmal. Having played 5 finals campaigns away from home with 14 matches, no wins and 4 draws, things do not look all that flash for the Germany tournament. On the plus side Korea has always managed to find the net even in tough times, averaging over 2 goals every three games when playing away from home. On the down side is their inability to call upon their former coach Guus Hiddink, arguably the best in the world. No doubt his control over the Korean squad last time around lead to much of the team’s success and despite recently calling in fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat the coaching of the team has been unstable since Hiddink’s departure. Whether or not Advocaat has had enough preparatory time to stamp his authority upon the players and impress some successful tactics remains to be seen but Korea can thank their lucky stars that they were handed a relatively easy group. Whilst France may be a powerful presence Switzerland is not. They have some history but nothing to scare the Koreans and then there is Togo, an absolute world cup minnow in terms of experience and quality of squad. Quite honestly if Korea as a footballing nation is to ever be taken seriously now is the time for them to stand up and prove that their last appearance was no fluke. I think they have earned the right to be considered a worthy opponent and should no longer be pencilled in as a ‘win’ by other teams looking further ahead. To this extent they will lack the surprise factor of last time since everyone knows what they can achieve. If Korea gets off to a flyer and soundly beats Togo then they could have the confidence to take points away from France. A possible second round rematch with Spain awaits and without the ‘Red Army’ to cheer them on this time I see Spanish revenge on the horizon.

Prediction: Round of 16

Japan

Japan are enjoying a great period in their footballing history making this their third finals appearance on the trot. The only Asian nation who can better this is their friendly rivals across the water, Korea. Last time around on home soil they slipped under many people’s radars and snuck into the second round of 16 but just like in France 8 years ago they will find the going much tougher in a foreign land. They should take some heart from having several players being based in European clubs but there is always a feeling that the J-league representatives simply lack a strong sense of tactical know-how. Brazilian coach and former super player Zico should help to fill in some of the gaps but one man on the sideline cannot do the work of 11 on the pitch. If he can pull the strings of a life time and get the very best from every single squad member than as a unit Japan should give a good account of themselves. It is when they put the man above the team, especially in attack, that Japan can often let itself down. If they forget about long range shooting and glory hunting and stick to the task of team play I can see them go as far as the second round, but then again in a tough group with Brazil, maybe not.

Prediction: Group Stage

Mexico

By rights Mexico should be a nation with a world cup resting in their trophy cabinet since the passion Mexicans have for international football is arguably stronger than any other nation. If world cups were won and lost through patriotic fanaticism then Mexico would come close every time but enthusiasm on the terraces and around the television sets does not translate to on field success. With the game having been introduced by Spanish colonisers it might come as no surprise that the Mexicans have struggled down the years, as Spain itself is considered the most under-achieving football side in history. Individually Mexican players have always possessed great skill but somehow as a team they have never excelled towards the tougher stages of a world cup final tournament, typically falling at the first knock out stage. This trend is set to continue since despite being handed a relatively easy group containing unfancied Iran and Angola they are due to play either Argentina or Holland in the second round, two of world football’s giants. Since people love an underdog Mexico always picks up fans along the way as an entertaining, attacking side, but unless some fresh talent emerges off the bench their older war horses will not have the legs to carry them further than before.

Prediction: Round of 16

The United States

Just like with Australia, football is not an established sport in the US. America has its own self-centred sporting culture revolving around three main sports that it invented itself, Gridiron, Baseball, and Basketball. But again like Australia the immigrant population has been largely responsible for keeping the game alive until such time as it is beginning to enter the national consciousness. After their above average performance last tournament, the American public has finally begun to see what all the fuss is about. Here is a sport unlike any of their own that the whole planet is passionate about. Caring about what the rest of the world thinks is a new concept to most US sports fans but even they have been made to see that there really is joy to be had in a game everybody plays. Bruce Arena, the tactical genius of Korea/Japan has again been allowed to lead the squad, head first into arguably the second toughest group in the tournament. Both Italy and the Czech Republic have fantastic football teams containing many of the world’s very best players and even though Ghana has never qualified for a FIFA world cup before it is one of the few African nations with a genuine footballing pedigree. As we saw in 2002, world cups can be full of surprises and many of the more fancied competitors can fall drastically below expectations. France, Argentina, and Portugal were all tipped to go far last time out but never even made it out of the group stages and it is not uncommon for teams full of self-proclaimed stars to disintegrate if things do not go their way early on. The Italians are notoriously good ‘infighters’ and this has no doubt cost them down the years. That is not to say that this will not be their year but who ever wins the Italy-Czech Republic clash will be on easy street whilst the loser will be facing the hangman’s noose. If the USA pinch points of either team and other results go their way then expect to see another strong showing from a well drilled and extremely fit 23 man group. If they do get through, a certain clash with the Brazilian boys awaits in what could be the biggest upset in tournament history. I predict the USA to beat Brazil (can anyone say penalty shootout?) and make their second consecutive world cup quarter-finals appearance. You heard it here first folks!

Prediction : Quarter-Finals

So there you have it. Not exactly the most heartening of visions with only three of the seven Asia-Pacific nations tipped to extend their stay in Germany, but given that most of our competing nations have had to fast track their footballing development as opposed to having centuries old experience to call upon, anyone of our teams progressing is something to be proud of.

If you are not interested in football then I would suggest you take a moment this June to see what all the fuss is about. If you are already a convert but your own country failed to get invited to the party then I would suggest you pick a neighbouring nation’s team and get on board their world cup train.

And lastly, I think we all, every Asia-Pacific citizen, should support every one of our teams until the very last is eliminated, hopefully later rather than sooner. If one or two of our representatives can have a big cup run we should all cheer and poke fun at our Atlantic European and South American friends and say “Hey, anything you can do, we can do too!”

Bernard Laidlaw


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